This is not a happy story, so grab your tissues.
We’re all going to the beach. I don’t like beaches.
The sun is very hot and the sky is a perfect blue, the temperature is in the upper 20’s celsius, and the sea is wet and full of sea things. Ice creams are being licked and dropped onto the warm sand, umbrellas are collapsing onto beer bottles precariously arranged around towels, which are now soaked in West End XXX, and sunbathers are rubbing sunscreen and sand all over their bare bodies, their sunglasses, and their books.
Even though I don’t like them, kids love beaches.
Which is why we find Jane, Arnna, and Grant Beaumont on Glenelg Beach on 26 January 1966, enjoying the day, having been allowed to visit the beach on their own by their parents, Nancy, who died last year at the age of ninety-two, and Jim, who continues, by some miracle of strength and endurance, to live in Adelaide.
I say by some miracle, because that day nearly fifty-five years ago, was the last time those three children were ever seen by anyone.
I told you this wasn’t a happy one.
Anyway, even with one of the most intense investigations in Australian history, and a plethora of leads and suspects, their disappearance has never been explained nor solved in any way.
About a year later, a man went swimming at Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, in Victoria. The sea was a dark, foreboding blue, and at some point Holt was lost from sight. Similarly, an extensive search was undertaken, and yet he also was never seen again. And again, even with myriad theories and ideas, no trace of Harold Holt was ever found. The fact that he was the Australian Prime Minister at the time only added to the mystery, and to the global attention that the incident garnered.
Now, here’s where the story turns more hopeful.
While neither the Beaumonts nor Holt may ever be found, or their fates truly known, similar tragedies could be avoided in the future.
Imagine now that the beach at Glenelg or Cheviot had not one set of eyes watching the stretches where the Beaumonts or Holt disappeared, but a thousand.
Imagine that scanning for danger doesn’t rely on one person turning their head to scour the area, but on an artificially-intelligent camera-based system which monitors the environment continually, sharing real-time information with the lifeguard.
Imagine that in the blink of an eye, a lifeguard would be able to detect and protect, reducing the need for deadly rescue attempts, and saving children from abductions, and prime ministers from drowning, and fishermen from shark bites.
Back to the beach, and to 1963.
Rodney Fox is competing in the Australian Spearfishing Championships, just south of Adelaide. As the sparkling blue of the sea began to churn with foamy energy, out came a great white shark, feeling peckish. The shark bit him around the waist, inflicting such damage to his body that rescuers had to leave his wetsuit on to keep his internal organs inside him.
The attack punctured his diaphragm, ripped his lungs open, crushed every rib in the left side of his body, tore the main artery from his heart, opened his stomach and spleen, and cut all the tendons in his right hand.
And you thought stubbing your toe hurt.
The shark, however, was having a fine time, and came back to drag his dinner to the seabed, which it did, only releasing Fox when he was able to poke the predator in the eye, and float back to the surface.
Fox, though, was a fighter, and after many hours of surgery and popping bits back inside his body, he recovered, designed one of the first shark cages, and helped Steven Allan Spielberg recreate shark mayhem in Jaws. The shark was never seen again, by the way, as far as we know.
One more beachy visit.
If we travel back in time fifteen years, to 1948, we find a man lying dead on Somerton Park beach, under a faded blue sky, also in Adelaide. Other than his clothes, the only other piece of evidence the man possessed was a scrap of paper, torn from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which read ‘tamám shud’, meaning simply ‘finished’.
Within a few years, the police had more than two-hundred theories for the man's appearance on the beach, and more than thirty-six ‘positive identifications’, none of which were the same. To this day, authorities have no idea who he was.
But let’s meet someone who may have been able to help. This is Sightbit, the AI lifeguard, developed and working as I type and as you read.
Unlike humans, Sightbit is able to see everything in her vision in one moment, using her multi-camera scanning technology and her artificial brain. She may have noticed the Beaumonts being led off, or wandering along alone, and at the very least recorded their abductor.
Sightbit will also log accurately every aspect of the beach environment, to build up valuable detailed knowledge about conditions at different times of the day, month, and season. She’ll spot water hazards up to eighty percent faster than a human, recording the scene and warning of danger. She may have been able to warn Holt of the turbulence of the sea, and undercurrent potential, or even have recorded his entry point and direction, to enable the search to be more focused more quickly.
She’ll be able to scan with a thousand eyes rather than two, or four, and may be able to see with absolute clarity when an ice cream is about to drop onto the sand, when an umbrella is about to collapse onto an open beer bottle, or how and when ‘Somerton Man’ arrived on the beach, and who he may have been.
Picture by Kelly Lacy